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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Escalating Yemeni crisis casts doubt on GCC’s ability to douse Arab fires


Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh (C) attends a rally held by pro-government supporters in Sanaa. (Reuters photo)

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh (C) attends a rally held by pro-government supporters in Sanaa. (Reuters photo)
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s faltering efforts to resolve Yemen’s four-month old crisis threaten the council’s hopes of establishing itself as an island of stability and a stabilizing force in the Middle East and North Africa.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rejection of a GCC-mediated solution that would have eased the embattled leader out of office after 33 years in power with a promise of immunity for himself and his family has also highlighted differences within the Saudi-led club of the Gulf’s six oil-rich monarchies.
To offset its failure, the GCC this week invited Jordan and Morocco to join the council in a bid to bolster its security and projection as the club of the Arab world’s conservative Sunni Muslim monarchies.

Adding insult to injury, Qatar, the GCC’s odd man out, this week dealt a significant blow to the united front the council is seeking to project by withdrawing from its efforts to mediate an end to the Yemeni crisis sparked by mass anti-government protests. The protesters are demanding Mr. Saleh’s immediate departure.

The Qatari decision was announced just as the GCC was dispatching its secretary general to Yemen to revive the stalled deal, could lead to the collapse of the mediation effort.

Mr. Saleh had earlier accused Qatar of funding the Yemeni opposition in Yemen. He also charged that Qatar-owned broadcaster, Al Jazeera, had instigated the protests against his rule.

The failure of the GCC effort raises the specter of Saudi Arabia and the GCC’s worst fears: the disintegration of Yemen into chaos that potentially could spill across the border into the kingdom and neighboring Oman. The GCC also fears that the crisis will allow Al Qaeda in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP), the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, to operate more freely.

Mr. Saleh has been fuelling Gulf fears this week by taking a leaf out of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s book, partly in the belief that concern about Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen gives him a degree of leeway. Mr. Assad has so far despite international condemnation been able to brutally crack down on anti-government protesters with impunity.

Yemeni forces on Thursday fired machine guns mounted on military vehicles to halt a protest against Mr. Saleh, wounding dozens in the southern city of Taiz; two protesters were killed in another southern city. Security forces killed 13 protesters on Wednesday.

However, in contrast to Mr. Assad’s opponents whose main leverage is their resilience, Mr. Saleh’s opponents have been able to strike back at the president where it hurts most: the government’s economic base.

A series of attacks on power and pipelines as well as labor strikes and the blocking of fuel tankers moving through tribal areas have brought Yemen’s oil production to a virtual standstill. One of the Arab world’s poorest nations, Yemen relies on oil to fund three-quarters of the government budget. By stopping oil production, the protesters are pushing the country into further economic decline and making it more difficult for Mr. Saleh to keep his loyalists happy.

The protesters hope that the stoppage of oil production will increase Gulf and international pressure on Mr. Saleh to finally step down. They are banking on heightened fears that Al Qaeda militants could gain control of Yemen’s foremost oil fields. The fields are primarily located in the provinces of Shabwa, Marib and Hadhramaut where Al Qaeda militants and their tribal allies are believed to have emerged stronger after Mr. Saleh withdrew his security and police forces to reinforce positions around the capital Sana’a.

If the protesters are seeking to economically strangle Mr. Saleh, the president seems to be hoping that the strategy will backfire because it also hurts the local population.

Some regions of the Yemen are without water while Sana’a itself is witnessing lengthy power cuts. Food and cooking gas prices have soared in a country where almost half of the population lives on less than $2 a day and a third faces chronic hunger.

Mr. Saleh’s increasingly brutal response to the protesters is designed to build on the pain caused by the disruption of oil production to break the resolve of at least a significant number of protesters. In doing so, however, Mr. Saleh is looking at only one page in Mr. Assad’s book. A closer look would tell him that Mr. Assad’s crackdown as well as the Syrian president’s efforts to block his opponent’s access to basic goods like bread has so far failed to stymie protests in Syria.

The Yemeni president’s toughening stance, nonetheless, does not bode well for the GCC’s attempt to revive its faltering mediation efforts. The stakes for the GCC are high. Failure to succeed in its own backyard, casts doubt on the GCC’s ability to act as a stabilizing force and fireman elsewhere in a region that increasingly is pockmarked by multiple fires.

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